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Trappings of the Dark Ages make ‘Vikings’ a must-watch

The History Channel scored big with its miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys.” Now it returns with an even more ambitious epic, “Vikings.”

The opening music to each episode of “Vikings” is haunting – and it seems appropriately dark and brooding for a series devoted to the heroes of the Dark Ages.

It’s a nine-part dramatic series that History commissioned for a whopping $40 million. The result is a lush, full-bodied epic that does its best to transport us to Scandinavia, circa 793 AD.

The idea most of us have of the Vikings – they were brutally efficient killing machines, ruthlessly raping and pillaging their way across northern Europe. But this series sets out to present a more rounded idea of Viking culture: their family structure, their village life, their political and justice systems, and their religious beliefs.

The series opens just before the Vikings began their terror campaigns into Europe. In fact, the central conflict of the first couple of episodes revolves around whether they should venture west for a change.

The powerful Earl, played by Gabriel Bryne, insists on the status quo of going East. He’s not the least bit interested in risking his fortune on some mythical lands in the West.

But the young warrior Ragnar is itching for new lands to discover and conquer and he secretly assembles a crew.

“We can offer you a chance to shine in battle,” Ragnar persuades. “And to bring back such plunder that you have never seen before. Have you got the balls to join us?”

With a newly designed boat and a secret navigational aid (a floating sun dial,) these upstart Vikings head West and change the course of history.

I’ve had a chance to preview five of the nine episodes, and perhaps what’s most surprising is how little raiding goes on in the series, compared to all the infighting among the Vikings themselves.

There’s plenty of brutality, both against foreigners and among themselves, but there’s an equal amount of time spent on their socializing, philosophizing, and yes, even boat building.

The political machinations in the show are perhaps a little too reminiscent of the palace intrigue of other historical periods but it’s all the trappings of the Dark Ages that will get me to stay with the series for as long as it runs.

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